How luck helped Green Bay Packers, Microsoft bring TitletownTech to life | Green Bay Press Gazette

GREEN BAY – TitletownTech now has almost $100 million to invest in and attract early-stage startup companies and entrepreneurs to the Green Bay region. Its impact in its first five years of existence left even its founders and most ardent advocates in a bit of disbelief.

“If when we were starting this we’d said in the first four years we’d raise $95 million, I’m not sure many would have believed that,” said Craig Dickman, TitletownTech’s managing director.

Dickman would know.

He was one of the first people TitletownTech’s progenitors sought out for feedback on their original idea. He has since borne witness to many of the happy accidents, random connections, little moments and unlikely puzzle pieces that fit together just right to launch TitletownTech.

There were lunch meetings. A key connection via a Milwaukee journalist. A tour of Lambeau Field (of course). Packers’ CEO Mark Murphy’s belief the team could do more beyond the field for the Green Bay area. And the spark to re-energize northeastern Wisconsin’s entrepreneurial spirit.

“There’s something magical in the water of the Fox River,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said. “You don’t find this combination in as many places as you’d hope. To see TitletownTech come to life here is rewarding for us.”

TitletownTech’s origin story had not been told in late July when Smith mentioned in an interview that Microsoft “lucked” into meeting the Packers in 2017. The story goes back further, though, to a vision laid out by Packers Chief Operating Officer Ed Policy.

“Origin stories get to the heart of why you exist,” Dickman said. “When the founding story of TitletownTech is written, Ed Policy will be recognized as the founder. We’ve all been building on the vision he laid out in the first place.”

It started when the Packers set out to combat ‘brain drain’ in Wisconsin 

That vision began in 2014 with a big-picture issue on Murphy and Policy’s mind: Green Bay, like much of Wisconsin, was in the depths of a “brain drain.” Wisconsin since 2000 was among the top 10 states for net loss of highly educated 31- to 40-year-olds, according to a report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

“A number of people said Green Bay’s population, unless you make changes … would decrease. We had fewer and fewer college graduates,” Murphy said.

Could the Packers, they wondered, help attract entrepreneurs and startups to the Green Bay area? The types of new companies that attract young people to their jobs?

Policy would call the idea TitletownVentures in a March 17, 2014, informational report. The new entity would raise $4.5 million to provide entrepreneurs with the resources and talent to launch companies with high growth potential, the kind more associated with Silicon Valley than the Fox Valley. It would focus on sports and entertainment companies and the Packers would seed the fund with $300,000.

“Hopefully this space would be the ecosystem for businesses to be born and thrive right here in our community,” Policy said.

Policy sought feedback from a few business leaders in the area, including Dickman, then CEO of Breakthrough and a new member of the Packers board of directors. Dickman had gone through the sort of startup and early stage business development Policy envisioned. Over a series of lunches at Regatta 220, a now-closed Ashwaubenon restaurant, the idea gained momentum.

Policy said Dickman would provide a key suggestion to push TitletownVentures out of the team’s comfort zone and into industries like logistics and health care. Dickman said Policy, way back in 2013, laid out a “guiding principle” that still resonates.

“If you build an ecosystem that’s supportive of entrepreneurs and can create a more positive environment for people to launch businesses, it will both attract more entrepreneurs and more entrepreneurs would emerge from the region,” Dickman recalled.

‘Those unexpected connections are often where something extraordinary happens’

The common perception is that journalists only end up on the receiving end of tips.

But in January 2017, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel journalist Kathleen Gallagher had a tip to give.

Microsoft was pushing for broadband expansion in Wisconsin. Next, it wanted to expand digital skills and technology resources and started to meet with groups focused on those issues.

Enter Gallagher, a tech-focused business reporter who left the Journal-Sentinel in January 2017 and now leads the 5 Lakes Institute. She attended one such meeting, between Microsoft and leaders of Milwaukee-based gener8tor. Gallagher recalled Smith thought the company could do a lot for the Packers after it partnered with Real Madrid, giants of the Spanish La Liga, in 2018.

Gallagher also regularly spoke with Hank Kinzie, a strategy consultant for the Packers who liked to ask her about the state’s startup ecosystem. “(Hank) knew the Packers were interested in helping to make a difference in this state,” Gallagher said.

She called Kinzie, to share Smith’s interest and connect him with Kate Behncken, now Microsoft vice president and leader of Microsoft Philanthropies. Dickman called it a moment of “good fortune.”

“Those unexpected connections are often where something extraordinary happens,” he said.

Gallagher suspects Microsoft and the Packers would have connected anyway, but said her small role reflects the outsize importance of local journalism.

“I was uniquely positioned as a Journal-Sentinel business reporter to have a sense of what both sides were looking for, to have connections with both sides,” she said. “It wasn’t because it was me, it was because I was a reporter at the Journal-Sentinel. It’s the value of reporters. They have those connections.”

Smith, a Wisconsin native and Appleton West High School graduate, looked forward to the opportunity, even if nothing came of it.

“Let’s see what comes out of talking with the Packers,” Smith recalled thinking. “It can’t hurt to spend half a day at Lambeau Field.”

Still, Gallagher said the $70 million second fund is encouraging.

“My experience is successful venture funds raise more the next time and less-successful funds raise less,” Gallagher said. “It’s encouraging they were able to raise almost three times more money.”

Smith said it’s about a decade too early to answer that question, but that current signs bode well for the region. He did offer some glimpse of what success might look like.

“One thing is to see a broader community of companies that have taken root here, that are growing, that are creating jobs, that are hiring local people, and creating products the world needs and providing them,” Smith said.

TitletownTech timeline

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Source: How luck helped Green Bay Packers, Microsoft bring TitletownTech to life

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